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St. Anne Catholic School in Ottawa's west end, has set up an anti-bullying program where students take turns monitoring for bullying during recess and lunch. (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail/Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
St. Anne Catholic School in Ottawa's west end, has set up an anti-bullying program where students take turns monitoring for bullying during recess and lunch. (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail/Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

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Why we're losing the fight against bullying Add to ...

Zero-tolerance policies on fighting, as cases in Canada have shown, do not solve the problem either, often leading to punishment without investigation, and little follow-up. Last month, in Squamish, B.C., for example, Zoe Aldridge says she alerted her son's school that a gang of boys planned to coerce him into a lunch-hour confrontation: When the fight happened, with a crowd of students jeering and catching it on video, 14-year-old Austin emerged with a broken hand and a suspension. (The alleged instigators received lunchtime detentions, she says.) Ms. Aldridge now wants the school board to pass a rule requiring that such incidents be referred to the police. "You tell your kids, 'Come to an adult, we'll sort it out.' That's exactly what he did, and it failed him."

What makes a program work

Many anti-bullying programs are implemented in schools, often inconsistently, because they sound good, rather than being supported by actual research. A couple of years ago, says David Smith, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa who studies bullying interventions, the Ontario government doled out money for anti-bullying initiatives, but schools had to scramble to get it spent before the end of the fiscal year, without real thought about where it should go to do the most good. "Probably," Dr. Smith observes wryly, "Chapters and Amazon.com did very well."

A good bullying program, Dr. Smith says, is shaped by the needs of the individual schools. Such programs must be adapted to the age and gender of children, as well as the circumstances around specific incidents, while fully involving parents, students and teachers.

The results show: A 2008 analysis of 15,000 students in Canada, the U.S. and Europe found that roughly one-third of students felt that anti-bullying programs had improved their school environment; but on an individual level, victims and bullies reported little or no change. That's why a school like St. Anne may have the right idea, by including parents, empowering teachers and students and stressing the role of social skills in managing bullying.

According to an ongoing international survey of bullying by the World Health Organization, Canada ranks in the middle, with higher rates by several measures than England and the United States. (Canada has more reports of bullying than the U.S., but fewer Canadian students admit to being bullies.)

While other nations have brought their numbers down, researchers say, Canada has had limited success, according to data collected from 1994 to 2006. Although there was a decline in reports of students involved in repeated, long-term bullying, the number of chronic victims has remained steady - and girls' reports of occasional bullying have increased. As awareness grew about bullying, students may have identified it more often, but this doesn't explain why other countries, with similar campaigns, have seen more significant improvement. Topping the list is Sweden, which has a clear national strategy on bullying - something that's complicated in Canada, since provinces handle education. And while Canadians may consider themselves more tolerant and open-minded than Americans - reports of verbal and physical harassment from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students are only marginally lower here.

Talking it out

Last year, when whispering, rumours and exclusion were dividing the class of Grade 7 girls at Bridlewood Community Elementary School, not far from St. Anne, teachers organized a "class circle" forcing the students to discuss the problem as a group in one-hour sessions over four weeks. The school is a pilot case for restorative justice.

The girls talked about what it meant to be cool, and, as one student who participated explained, saw that they weren't alone. What's more, they felt empowered to speak up against bullying, or walk away - an important component since most bullies seek an audience. "There were girls that I had not heard talk before," said another student. (Neither of them wanted to be named.) Everybody knows that bullying is wrong on principle, they explained, but people still do it. "The circles were different" from just setting out codes of conduct; "they went deeper."

Still, the verdict is mixed on restorative justice, partly because it may be used in situations that require sterner action. Peer mediation has also proved less effective with older grades, when the dynamics of bullying are more socially complex.

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